The Sicilian Expedition was an Athenian military expedition to Sicily, which took place during the period from 415 BC to 413 BC (during the Peloponnesian War). The expedition was hampered from the outset by uncertainty in its purpose and command structure—political maneuvering in Athens swelled a lightweight force of twenty ships into a massive armada, and the expedition’s primary proponent, Alcibiades, was recalled from command to stand trial before the fleet even reached Sicily—but still achieved early successes. Syracuse, the most powerful state on Sicily, responded exceptionally slowly to the Athenian threat and, as a result, was almost completely invested before the arrival of a Spartan general, Gylippus, galvanized its inhabitants into action. From that point forward, however, as the Athenians ceded the initiative to their newly energized opponents, the tide of the conflict shifted. A massive reinforcing armada from Athens briefly gave the Athenians the upper hand once more, but a disastrous failed assault on a strategic high point and several crippling naval defeats damaged the besiegers’ fighting capacity and morale, and the Athenians were eventually forced to attempt a desperate overland escape from the city they had hoped to conquer. That last measure, too, failed, and nearly the entire expedition surrendered or was destroyed in the Sicilian interior.
The impact of the defeat was immense. Two hundred ships and thousands of soldiers, an appreciable portion of the city’s total manpower, were lost in a single stroke. Athens’s enemies on the mainland and in Persia were encouraged to take action, and rebellions broke out in the Aegean. The defeat proved to be the turning point in the Peloponnesian War, though Athens struggled on for another decade. Thucydides observed that contemporary Greeks were shocked not that Athens eventually fell after the defeat, but rather that it fought on for as long as it did, so devastating were the losses suffered. […]
On September 13, the Athenians left camp leaving their wounded behind and their dead unburied. The survivors, including all the non-combatants, numbered 40,000, and some of the wounded crawled after them as far as they could go. As they marched they defeated a small Syracusan force guarding the river Anapus, but other Syracusan cavalry and light troops continually harassed them. Near the Erineus river, Demosthenes and Nicias became separated, and Demosthenes was attacked by the Syracusans and forced to surrender his 6,000 troops. The rest of the Syracusans followed Nicias to the Assinarus river, where Nicias’s troops became disorganized in the rush to find drinking water. Many Athenians were trampled to death and others were killed while fighting with fellow Athenians. On the other side of the river a Syracusan force was waiting, and the Athenians were almost completely massacred, by far the worst defeat of the entire expedition in terms of lives lost. Nicias personally surrendered to Gylippus, hoping the Spartan would remember his role in the peace treaty of 421. The few who escaped found refuge in Catana.
The prisoners, now numbering only 7,000, were held in the stone quarries near Syracuse, as there was no other room for them. Demosthenes and Nicias were executed, against the orders of Gylippus. The rest spent ten weeks in horrible conditions in their makeshift prison, until all but the Athenians, Italians, and Sicilians were sold as slaves. The remaining Athenians were left to die slowly of disease and starvation in the quarry. In the end some of the very last survivors managed to escape and eventually trickled to Athens, bringing first-hand news of the disaster. […]
In Athens, the citizens did not, at first, believe the defeat. Plutarch, in his Life of Nicias, recounts how the news reached the city:
It is said that the Athenians would not believe their loss, in a great degree because of the person who first brought them news of it. For a certain stranger, it seems, coming to Piraeus, and there sitting in a barber’s shop, began to talk of what had happened, as if the Athenians already knew all that had passed; which the barber hearing, before he acquainted anybody else, ran as fast as he could up into the city, addressed himself to the Archons, and presently spread it about in the public Place. On which, there being everywhere, as may be imagined, terror and consternation, the Archons summoned a general assembly, and there brought in the man and questioned him how he came to know. And he, giving no satisfactory account, was taken for a spreader of false intelligence and a disturber of the city, and was, therefore, fastened to the wheel and racked a long time, till other messengers arrived that related the whole disaster particularly. So hardly was Nicias believed to have suffered the calamity which he had often predicted.
When the magnitude of the disaster became evident, there was a general panic. Attica seemed free for the taking, as the Spartans were so close by in Decelea.
The defeat caused a great shift in policy for many other states, as well. States which had until now been neutral joined with Sparta, assuming that Athens’s defeat was imminent. Many of Athens’s allies in the Delian League also revolted, and although the city immediately began to rebuild its fleet, there was little they could do about the revolts for the time being. The expedition and consequent disaster left Athens reeling. Some 10,000 hoplites had perished and, though this was a blow, the real concern was the loss of the huge fleet dispatched to Sicily. Triremes could be replaced, but the 30,000 experienced oarsmen lost in Sicily were irreplaceable and Athens had to rely on ill-trained slaves to form the backbone of her new fleet.
In 411 BC, the Athenian democracy was overthrown in favour of an oligarchy, and Persia joined the war on the Spartan side. Although things looked grim for Athens, they were able to recover for a few years. The oligarchy was soon overthrown, and Athens won the Battle of Cynossema; however, the defeat of the Sicilian expedition was essentially the beginning of the end for Athens. In 404 BC they were defeated and occupied by Sparta.